Friday, March 12, 1999

Building cable system from ground up

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jim Baldwin knows what it's like to want more from a cable TV company.

        When he moved here in 1989 to go to law school, he found out his local cable provider did not carry the games of his beloved Detroit Red Wings.

        Cut off from hockey, he was ticked off. And he never forgot the feeling.

        Now that he's the city of Lebanon's deputy director of telecommunications, he keeps that feeling in mind as he heads the town's fledgling cable system. Lebanon is going head-to-head with Time Warner Cable. And Jim wants to give his customers what they want.

        A lawyer by trade, Jim told me he first took an intense interest in local cable for “an idiotic reason.” That would be his discovery that there were no Red Wings games in Cincinnati.

        In law school, he became involved as a volunteer with the Intercommunity Regulatory Commission. The ICRC helps communities negotiate cable rates and resolve customer complaints. “Their number was in the phone book,” Jim remembers. He originally called them up “to complain about there not being any hockey on cable.”

        Little did he know this was the seed of a future career.

        After he passed the bar in 1992, Jim became the commission's attorney. He negotiated cable TV renewal contracts for 40 municipalities in Greater Cincinnati. One client was the city of Lebanon. Years later, when differences over rates and service moved the Warren County city to create its own cable system and compete with Time Warner, Lebanon hired Jim to run the system.

        Building something from scratch is in his blood.

        “My father is an electrical engineer,” Jim told me. “He was one of the inventors of air hockey.”

        Jim remembers growing up in an atmosphere where puttering around was part of the daily routine, where innovation was highly praised.

        “So I've always enjoyed that kind of challenge.”

        He faces what seems like a daunting challenge as he builds a cable system from the ground up. Lebanon taking on Time Warner is a David vs. Goliath deal.

        Time Warner is the second-largest cable provider in the country, with 12 million subscribers. In Greater Cincinnati, where 69 percent of the market has cable TV, Time Warner has 223,000 subscribers.

        And how many subscribers does Lebanon's city cable have?

        Jim peeled a Post-it note off his desktop. “2,162,” he said with a grin.

        “I don't feel like David fighting Goliath,” he added. “Time Warner has about 50 percent of the market in Lebanon. There's room for both of us. It's good for competition.”

        Since Lebanon went into the cable business, Time Warner has become more subscriber-friendly. Rates have dropped. The number of available channels has increased.

        “See,” Jim said, “competition is working already.”

        While Jim sees Time Warner as a strong competitor, he's certain the city's cable system will do just fine. “People around here are independent thinkers. They are loyal to hometown businesses. They can see us at work.

        “That's why I've felt we were in the driver's seat from Day One.

        “I may sound totally optimistic,” he added, “but that's the way I am.”

        He knows lots of small towns are pulling for him. He keeps getting calls from city officials across Ohio, and in other states.

        “They want to know if they can copy us or be a part of our system.”

        Lebanon's cable system can extend beyond the city limits. “We can go 30 miles in any direction from downtown Lebanon,” Jim told me. But he's putting “a moratorium on talking about expansion.”

        Jim Baldwin doesn't want to be a cable-TV mogul. He just wants to concentrate “on getting this business started and doing it right.”

        Customer satisfaction is a big part of his game plan. Even when it comes to himself. That's why there's hockey on the schedule.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.